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Opinion | In Azerbaijan sex is a weapon

5 April 2021
Illustration by Mariam Nikuradze.

Narmin Shahmarzadeh was targeted by hackers who stole personal information and intimate materials, which they then published online. Now, exclusively for OC Media, she writes why she thinks the Azerbaijani authorities are behind the hack, and why sexual blackmail is becoming a more common tactic in Azerbaijan. 

My Facebook profile was hacked on 9 March, one day after I participated in the International Women’s Day protest in Baku. Intimate conversations, photos, and voice recordings belonging to me were published and disseminated. 

Despite my appeals to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Prosecutor General’s Office nothing was done.  Even when I stated that I believed they have a hand in this matter, I received not even so much as a reply. 

They have not always ignored me, however.  When I made public my opposition to the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War I was summoned to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and questioned. When I made comments about a National Hero of Azerbaijan, I was summoned to the Prosecutor’s Office, charged with a crime and eventually convicted.

Now when the state does not lift a finger to address the criminal acts carried out against me, I can only conclude that it was involved in carrying out these acts.  

But I am not the only one who such a gross invasion of privacy has happened to. This practice has a long and disgusting history in Azerbaijan, one which uses a woman’s sexuality and private life to shame her or her relatives and which is meant to remind everyone that not even their most private moments are not their own. 

A sordid history

A day before my account was hacked, Mahammad Mirzali, an opposition blogger living in France made a video in which he said that he had been sent an intimate video of his sister. The sender threatened to publish the video, he said, unless he agreed to keep silent. 

The video of his sister was published several hours after Mirzali made these allegations.  

A little over a week later, Mirzali was violently attacked in the street. Mirzali, who suffered several stab wounds, has since blamed the Azerbaijani government for the attack. 

This year, in the run-up to International Women’s Day, the private Facebook messages of feminist activist Gulnara Mehdiyeva, including deeply personal information, were published online

The most recent hacking attack took place on 29 March in which intimate images allegedly belonging to the daughter of opposition politician Jamil Hasanli were shared online. Hasanli accused the government of being responsible. 

While the dissemination of intimate materials has been a chosen mode of repression and intimidation only in the last two years, it is not novel. It stretches back years, with the most prominent case, that of Khadija Ismayilova, going back to 2012.

But why does the Azerbaijani go after such people? These are not revolutionaries; they do not have the power to bring down the government. 

No, but they are independent. They do not simply attack the actions of lone officials, but aim their criticism at the highest levels of the country’s governance. They are not afraid to name names, no matter how strong those they speak out against are. 

The danger is then, that their courage could inspire others. If they are not punished, then others might follow in their steps. By their repression then, the Azerbaijani government manages to intimidate all of society. 

Why intimate images? 

If we have a look at the previous decade, the ‘punishment’ of independent critics and members of the opposition was usually carried out through arrests on trumped-up charges. It’s not for nothing that Azerbaijan is seen as one of the worst countries in terms of the number of political prisoners held in its jails. 

But this practice damages the government’s international reputation — so they have switched tactics. Now, instead of long sentences, the authorities prefer brief but frequent arrests and the publication of intimate images. 

The intimate images are always of women, regardless of the government’s target. If they target a woman, then its images of her they publish. If they target a man, then they publish images of his female relatives. 

As in most parts of the Caucasus, for most Azerbaijanis, women are seen as the carriers of the honour and morality of their families, especially their husbands or other male relatives. 

This means that a woman’s sex life must be between her and her husband. This means, that sex can only be considered ‘normal’ after a large wedding witnessed by many guests, which itself only proceeds after the successful   ‘confirmation’ — an examination with the supervision of an older relative — that the bride is, indeed, a virgin. 

While a virgin bride is supposed to fill her family with pride, a woman who has or has had sex outside of marriage brings only shame to them. A woman who has sex outside of marriage is considered to be outside the control of her family — meaning that her father and brothers are weak, powerless men. 

The authorities leverage this tradition to the utmost, using it as a tool of discreditation and intimidation. 

A dissident woman, and we must remember that the power of dissent is that it is a courageous and moral act — who is shown having sex outside of marriage is thus painted as immoral. If it is a dissident man whose female relative is shown engaging in extra-marital sex, then it is meant to belittle him, to show that he is weak and worthy of contempt. 

The intimate materials shared in these blackmail and punishment schemes often highlight women performing oral sex. This is plays into the same patriarchal prejudices: ‘A moral woman does not perform oral sex. Only a prostitute does’. 

Simply put, such retrograde values, which diminish a woman’s very personhood, are useful to the government. This is one of the reasons the authorities try to preserve such ‘traditional values’. 

A 2019 speech by President Aliyev marking the 100th anniversary of the Baku State University is emblematic of this.

‘We live in a traditional society and we must continue to. We must respect women, we must protect them, we must defend them. Not they [women], but we [men]’,  he said. ‘There is gender equality, and we acknowledge this. But we cannot live apart from traditional thinking.’

Under the guise of ‘protecting’ women, the government not only limits their freedoms but perversely also ensures that their sexual blackmail of women and their relatives remains effective. 

This goes beyond just those who are directly targeted, of course. The fear of becoming a victim of such a scheme ensures that millions get the message to stay quiet when they want to speak up, or else.  

But the most basic assertion the government makes when it releases intimate materials is also the most terrifying. 

The bedroom is the most intimate, private place for people. By filming it and releasing the contents to the world, they are sending out the message: ‘we control everything, and there is nothing you do that we cannot see’.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of OC Media’s editorial board.

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